Chinook tribe keeps its eyes on recognition

Chinook, Washington (AP) October 2010

As Chinook tribal leaders plan a historic re-enactment this weekend, federal recognition still seems far away.

This week, under the auspices of the National Park Service, the Chinook will help re-enact one of the significant events in Pacific Northwest history, the first meeting between Chinookan people and oceangoing explorer Capt. Robert Gray in the late 1700s.

While the event celebrates the past, Chinook members are eager to secure their future.

House Resolution 3084 – which would give the tribe the recognition it has been seeking for decades – sits stalled in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. And the election looms with most lawmakers giving priority to other issues.

Earlier this year, Washington state Democrats unanimously
resolved to support federal recognition of the tribe. But they and tribal members wonder if Congress will take notice of these strong signs, and act on behalf of the 2,700 enrolled members of the tribe.      

Tribal Chairman Ray Gardner of Menlo, Wash., testified before the committee in July 2009.

Legislation sponsor, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, initially expected a positive vote by the entire House within weeks, then by year-end, then by this past spring. Baird, who has represented Pacific County for several terms, announced in November that he will not seek another term in Congress. At that time he indicated that he would continue to press for Chinook recognition but no firm action has been taken.

The issue has not been at the forefront of the campaign to replace him between longtime Washington Democrat Denny Heck, of Olympia, and state GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera, of Camas, who won their respective primaries and face each other in the general election Nov. 2.

Instead, it remains unapproved even by the Resources Committee, far less the complete House and Senate – all are deadlocked in advance of the acrimonious mid-term election.

According to Capitol Hill sources, committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-West Va., sees no point advancing any tribal recognition legislation in the absence of a firm assurance that the Senate will also act on the matter.

Meeting in Vancouver for their state convention June 26, state Democrats urged Baird and Washington U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to “make every effort to secure passage” of the Chinook bill.

Gardner, the chairman, said that the tribe is pinning its hopes on last-minute action by the lame-duck Congress in the session that follows the election and ends in December.

Meanwhile, the tribe is enthused about the living history event this week, which is titled, “Chinook Nation - U.S.A.: International Trading Partners, 1792-2010.” It will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Fort Columbia State Park.

More than 40 Chinookan paddlers, multiple canoes and two tall ships, the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain, are expected to be involved. The Chinookan paddlers will meet and trade with crew from the tall ships. Tribal interpreters will be at Fort Columbia near the restored theater, at the park’s entrance, to orient visitors.

Gardner has led development of a new park unit in the area.

“This park can be an example of how the National Park Service, states and tribal government can work together to get a park right,” he said. “We plan to tell the stories of both cultures truthfully and honestly, and without judgment.”